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City bees are all the buzz

Beekeeping gains in the concrete jungle, despite some concerns.

(Page 2 of 3)

“It’s much better to keep bees in a city,” he says. In rural and suburban areas, pesticides sprayed for agriculture and mosquito control can also harm bees. But in the city, the use of these kinds of pesticides is less widespread.

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“People have the perception that a hive in the city can’t make any honey at all,” Fischer says. “That’s just not true.”

Honeybees can find abundant nectar in parks and along tree-lined boulevards. Also, urban areas often have extensive ornamental gardens in bloom throughout the growing season.

But Nick Calderone, associate professor of entomology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., injects a note of caution. He says that hives can thrive in cities only if they’re near green spaces or gardens.

Many of the beekeepers Fischer knows are urban gardeners who began keeping bees because they wanted to increase their crops’ productivity. “If you want local food, you need local bees,” he says.

That’s why Roger Repohl of the Bronx became a beekeeper 10 years ago. Although his plants had plenty of flowers, they produced few vegetables. When he asked for advice from someone in the city’s Parks Department, he was told: “ ‘Oh, we don’t have pollinators in the South Bronx,’ ” he relates.

Although “some pollination is done by wind and rain, the majority is done by insects – including beetles, flies, butterflies, and, most significantly, by bees,” says Dr. Calderone. Many native species of bees are important pollinators, but their numbers have declined as their habitat has disappeared to development and large-scale agriculture.

Honeybees, which aren’t native to the United States, are used as pollinators on large farms as well as in personal gardens. But they are struggling, too.

The number of managed honeybee colonies in the US has dropped from 5 million to 2.5 million since the 1940s, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

And two mites that appeared in the US in the 1980s have been wreaking havoc on honeybee colonies since, says Calderone. Before their advent, home beekeepers might have lost 5 percent of their colonies per year and a migratory beekeeper 10 to 15 percent. Now, during bad years, beekeepers may lose five times that many colonies.

Then there’s the little-understood but much-publicized disease known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), which causes the mysterious disappearance of adult bees from colonies. While CCD’s cause is still not understood, “it’s certainly real and it’s certainly killing lots of bees, but exactly what it is, is hard to say,” says Calderone.

In urban areas, these problems haven’t discouraged gardeners from becoming beekeepers, And that’s good for all residents of the city, says Calderone. “Unless you want a totally sterile environment that’s devoid of all life other than people, you’re going to need plants. And to keep them functioning, you’re going to need pollinators.”